National defense bill clears hurdle, setting stage for final vote possibly this week

Key Points
  • Senate takes procedural step to allow the nearly $700 billion National Defense Authorization Act to move forward
  • Still, Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul threatened to slow the NDAA process
  • More than 300 amendments were proposed to the fiscal 2018 NDAA, including a measure for a new round of base closings
Wakil Kohsar | AFP | Getty Images

The Senate took up the National Defense Authorization Act on Monday evening, passing a motion that lets the legislation proceed and consideration of several controversial amendments.

However, Kentucky Republican Rand Paul was one of those who opposed the motion and Monday threatened to slow passage of the NDAA and amendments.

One of the amendments under consideration in the Senate would revive the idea of another round of base closings. In July, the House rejected an attempt to allow a new round of base closings, which the Pentagon has sought as a way to save about $2 billion annually, or $20 billion over 10 years.

The NDAA, legislation which sets forth the Pentagon's budget and major programs for the next fiscal year starting Oct. 1, is also expected to include a proposed amendment to stall President Donald Trump's ban on transgender people serving in the military. However, it's unclear whether the transgender or base closing amendments will get enough votes to be included in the Senate's final NDAA.

In a 89-3 vote Monday evening, the Senate agreed to invoke cloture on a motion to proceed with consideration on the national defense bill. The action effectively limits the procedural debate on the legislation and advances the NDAA to a full vote as early as this week.

Besides Sen. Paul, the NDAA cloture motion was opposed by Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden.

"Tonight, the Senate is attempting to move forward with the Defense Bill," Paul said Monday in a tweet. "I am seeking an amendment to end the AUMF in Afghanistan and Iraq."

The AUMF, or Authorization for Use of Military Force, was used first in 2001 by President George W. Bush when the U.S. deployed forces to Afghanistan.

Paul threatened to make the final NDAA passage more difficult, opposing "all procedural motions and amendments unless and until my amendment is made in order and we vote on these wars."

But he tweeted late Monday that "Senate leaders have agreed not to try to end debate early, and have agreed to four hours of debate under my control to debate these wars."

The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) completed its markup of the fiscal 2018 NDAA in June. Overall, the bill includes a total defense spend of nearly $700 billion.

Earlier this year, SASC Chairman John McCain, a Republican representing Arizona, called member hesitation to revisit base closings "cowardice" because he believes it provides money being wasted that could go to more pressing defense needs.

McCain and Democrat Sen. Jack Reed, ranking member of the SASC, are behind the amendment to revive the so-called Base Realignment and Closure Program (or BRAC) in 2019.

Unlike previous BRAC rounds, though, the amendment proposed in the Senate would leave the decision of selecting the actual bases to the Government Accountability Office. Previous BRAC programs were conducted by an independent commission.

When including all five of the previous BRAC rounds since the 1980s, there have been annual savings estimated at more than $12 billion — with nearly $5 billion alone from the last one in 2005. In some cases, the BRAC process could lead to the expansion of military facilities.

Meanwhile, the transgender amendment to the NDAA is being sponsored by New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins.

Last month, Defense Secretary James Mattis put a hold on the president's transgender military ban, but the measure in the Senate still appears to have widespread support. Even so, the Senate and House still need to hammer out a final NDAA, so final congressional action of the transgender ban is still uncertain.

Overall, there are more than 300 amendments proposed for the Senate's NDAA.

Other amendments include funding for increased anti-missile defense for the homeland as well as space-based missile interceptors. There's also an amendment for workplace protections against discrimination that would penalize defense contractors.